I am currently obsessed with houses. Old houses. Giant houses. Houses with far too many bedrooms and bathrooms for my small family. Houses with porte cocheres and carriage houses and barns. Houses with fireplaces and tall windows and leaded glass. Houses with peaks and turrets and bay windows and balconies. Houses with libraries and butler's pantries and multiple staircases. I even found one with an elevator.
I visit circaoldhouses.com more often than I should. I scroll through pictures when I should be organizing my tax documents. I look at house plans when I should be folding laundry. But laundry gets undone almost as soon as it's done, so why bother?
If I lived in one of these houses, I would have a room of my own. In fact, I would have several rooms of my own. Probably one for each day of the week. One could be an office, one an art studio, one a dance/yoga studio, and one just for empty space where I could lie down on the floor and make snow angels, minus the snow. I'd have a guest room for anyone who wanted to come visit. I'd have a room for foreign exchange students or refugees or foster children. There would be space in the kitchen for absolutely everything. Even the plastic food storage tops. And think of the Christmas parties!
It's a lovely dream, isn't it?
The reality is more likely to be lots of dust bunnies and cobwebs. Acres of floors to clean and far too many toilets to scrub. There would be a huge mortgage, not to mention the property taxes. And oh, the maintenance. All those chimneys to have swept. The grass to mow. The roof? Oy.
Still...a library and a butler's pantry?
I think I could find a way around the dust bunnies and cobwebs for a library and a butler's pantry.
Before practice or performance, dancers stretch their muscles, head to toe. Not only does stretching feel amazing, it prevents injury, and allows the performers to push the limits of their physical capabilities. See here for some favorite photos of dancers pushing their limits)
Visual artists complete quick warm-up sketches or gesture drawings to loosen up the hand, and to practice before drawing more complex and detailed work.
Singers perform vocal gymnastics in preparation for a performance. Lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-POP. (That used to be my favorite.)
And we writers? We open up a scene and dive in.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’ve found in the past week that a warm-up really helps my process. These warm-ups are nothing elaborate, nor are they award-winning writing. They are simply meant to get the internal editor out of the way and get the words flowing when I finally do sit down with my work-in-progress.
The rules? I write one side of a page in my notebook with a freely flowing pen, top to bottom. I don’t time myself, because I don’t want to get pulled out of my process wondering if I have 5 seconds left or 15. I just write from top to bottom as quickly as I can. If I get stuck, I write something stupid until another thought comes to me.
Here are some of the topics I’ve written as warm-up:
A description of a city I’ve visited
What I’ve neglected
I must be nuts to do this
All boundaries will disappear
What am I obsessed by?
The details of life
A description of my morning
Many of these topics have come from Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which is more like a visit with a writing coach than plodding through a craft book. With a quick google search, you can find dozens of other writing prompts, as well as writing prompt generators.
I write three of these pages then turn to my manuscript. It doesn’t take long, and by the time I’m done, I’m easily able to transfer my attention to my manuscript. Because of the practice, my words just fly out, without any hemming and hawing, and that makes me a happy writer.
Try it and see what you think, and be sure to let me know if it works for you.
Last week, I helped a woman who is moving from a very large house (probably over 3000 square feet) to a three-bedroom apartment.
We sorted the contents of her garage into piles of garbage, piles of recycling, piles of donations, and piles of things to keep. Some things were easy to sort: the bags of trash that had been sitting for weeks; the broken picture frame; the dented metal garbage can; the bags of clothes that no longer fit.
Some things were not so easy: the dollhouse that needed a few touch-ups but still had many hours of good Barbie time left in it; the unused $600 ski rack; the deflated soccer ball.
It was not my stuff, so it was easy for me to be objective. I had no emotional attachment to any of it, no history, no story, no memories lacquering the surfaces of these objects.
They were just things.
If I were to sort the contents of my own garage, I might not have such an easy time. We humans have a touch of the squirrel in us, a touch of the magpie. A response of “Oh! Pretty!” A desire to own and consume. We place an emotional value on things. With a nod to Tim O’Brien, some of us carry peaches in heavy syrup when we’re slashing our way through a war zone.
It doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?
In contrast, others carry very little at all, preferring to live a Thoreau-like deliberate existence. A guy named Dave created the 100-Thing Challenge, the goal of which is to “live a life of simplicity, characterized by joyfulness and thoughtfulness.”
He explains that so many of us feel “stuck in stuff” and the way to get unstuck is to reduce (getting rid of stuff), refuse (to get more stuff), and rejigger (your priorities).
The artist Simon Evans created a personal inventory cataloguing everything he owns. Sometimes, we need a proper inventory to see what’s what.
I fear I would brilliantly fail the 100-Thing Challenge. I suspect I have more than 100 things just in the drawers of my desk, and if I were to create a visual personal inventory, it definitely wouldn’t fit on one poster.
You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?
We writers collect words. We drape our stories with them, roll ourselves up in them, and swing them around until our worlds are filled with them. We say, “Oh! Pretty!” and hang onto them. We are unable to see that many of these words, while perfectly serviceable, do not fit our need.
As I approach revising my current manuscript, I’m trying to become a revisionary. I’m trying to see what’s there, to see what’s necessary and what’s not. It’s hard to be objective about the verbal stuff hanging out in my manuscript file-garage.
When I get to the end—when I get to what’s left behind—I’m hoping I’ll be left with what really matters. I’m hoping I’ll be left with an economy of words that are deliberate and that sing. That’s becoming revisionary.
You say you want a story? A true-life story, an end-of-the-road type story?
—Yeah, yeah, that kind.
A what’s-important story?
—You got a story or not?
Alright, alright, keep your shirt on. I’m thinking, ok? Ok.
Ok. I’ve got it. Here’s your story. So my grandfather used to fly planes during WWII.
Yeah, you know those things in the sky?
He was a test pilot. And one day, he was supposed to test fly this one plane, only for some reason his emergency pack wasn’t complete. See, they were supposed to carry a bar of emergency chocolate, and his pack had no chocolate. Yeah, I know, right? They had emergency chocolate! Smart brass, eh?
So my grandfather’s missing his chocolate.
No, I don’t know what happened to it—maybe he ate it one night when the mess hall had fiber fish for dinner. Maybe it melted in the Georgia sun. Maybe the rats got it, or the cockroaches carried it away. Who knows? That part’s not important to the story. For whatever reason, his pack had no chocolate.
So what did Grampy do? Well, he had two choices. One, fly the plane anyway, and risk getting written up for testing a plane without a complete pack.
—Not so good.
No, not so good. Or, he could simply get a replacement bar of emergency chocolate.
—I’d go for the chocolate, myself.
That’s exactly what he did. So the replacement bar of chocolate is across the base, and Grampy runs for it. The guys are waiting for him, checking their watches, checking the schedule. Come on, Sam, they say under their breath. Hurry up!
But there’s no Sam.
The minutes tick by. No Sam.
They prep the planes for flight. No Sam.
Five full minutes pass, and the other test pilots are sweating, there in the hot Georgia sun. “Go get Remus!” one of them says, disgusted that Sam’s not back yet.
Remus obliges. He’s got a full pack, complete with regulation chocolate. Sam will have to wait for the next group of planes. Remus will take Sam’s plane.
So Remus goes up.
And his plane goes down.
And Grampy not only had his emergency bar of chocolate, he had his life.
In the beginning was the Word. In her beginnings, there was a book. Her mother told her she could read before she started kindergarten, and she started kindergarten at age four. Each week, she would walk with her grandmother and older sister the nine or ten city blocks to their local branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, a low brick building down a side street.
There, she and her sister would settle in the children’s section, while their grandmother browsed through paperback mysteries and Regency romances. She remembers little of that library—windows, low shelves, Ezra Jack Keats’ A Snowy Day, and the front desk, where a stereotypically severe-looking librarian stamped their books with a heavy rubber stamp—ka-thunk!
By the time she was in fifth grade, her mother was in graduate school studying to become an elementary school librarian. Long Saturday afternoons were spent in Lockwood Library at the university: Mom at the copier with piles of coins, sister claiming the best of the blocky chairs available. The options were limited. Ride the elevator up and down, up and down. Run out to the vending machines, having first snatched a quarter from her mother’s towering pile. Quarter in, press F8, curly-cue swivels around, out pops frosted nut brownie. Or, of course, there were the stacks.
Mostly, she spent time in the stacks. One single row of children’s books, mostly books that sported shiny gold Newbery stickers. Somehow she got her hands on a bookmark that listed all the Newbery award winners, and she decided she would read them. Some of her favorite books were Newberies: A Wrinkle in Time, Tuck Everlasting, Bridge to Terabithia, The Westing Game, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. They were quickly joined by Summer of the Swans, My Side of the Mountain, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Great Gilly Hopkins, A Ring of Endless Light.
She remembers, though, mostly spending those afternoons with E.L. Konigsburg. Oh, they weren’t on a first-name basis, she and E.L., but nevertheless, she became great friends with Claudia and Jamie, wishing more than anything that she could stay in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that she could go to an automat (What was an automat, anyway?). She thrilled to the sound of Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. She gobbled up About the B’nai Bagels, while developing A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver. She even became Father’s Arcane Daughter for a while.
Those Saturday afternoons ceased, but she found other libraries to haunt. She could make a dot-to-dot design on a map of the United States of libraries she has frequented over her lifetime. It would undoubtedly look like an open book. Some of those libraries don’t exist anymore; some of them have expanded. All of them have been important to her. This one is the one she went to in college, studying with her roommates while wearing large hats (to channel the brain-waves, of course). This one she frequented when she was first married, borrowing books with unlikely plots and even more unlikely heroines. That is the one she walked to with her first baby, borrowing books on child development, as well as board books and movies for cheap date nights.
This library, here, was one of her favorites. She brought her toddler there for story time, but also to see the fish in the fish tank, and to work the puzzles on the table, and to borrow picture books to read to him, and CDs to listen to (a compilation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems set to music was her favorite). It was there that she returned to her love of children’s literature, often grabbing Anne of Green Gables off the shelf to read while her gingerbread boy played quietly. It was here that she realized she liked children’s literature better than literature for adults.
Now she frequents her current town library, an old schoolhouse built in the 1800s. It is a place where the librarians not only know her name, they know her library card number. She also volunteers in the elementary school library, where she returns dozens and dozens of books back to their places on the shelves. Sometimes, though, she sees a book that catches her eye, and she sits down right in the stacks, caught up in the pleasure of a book, just like she did when she was in fifth grade. Some things never change.
One of the most vital aspects of being able to fulfill one’s calling as an anguished writer is to have someone who understands. Today’s guest post is brought to you by William Johnson, also known as the Gingerbread Man. Ginger cannot confirm or deny any of the following allegations.
From the outside, to a non-writer, there are only three stages to writing a novel.
The first stage involves mornings when I awaken to the sound of pencil on paper, scribbling furiously. I see my writer intently pouring her soul into a small notebook. When I venture a question… “Honey, when do you think…?” I am greeted by a “Shhh, not now.”
If the muses have been kind, these mornings may involve an hour of ecstatic outpouring, rarely more. The activity sometimes comes in fits and starts, but often seems to most resemble the gush of a firehose from brain to paper. At times, there is transfer of notes to computer with smiles and giggles abounding. It seems that a writer truly enjoys this part of writing. But alas, with the dawning of the morning and the patter of size three feet, the muses are dispersed and the process comes to an abrupt halt.
The second stage of writing resembles sorting and folding laundry more than anything else. On these mornings, my writer goes to her office with her book map and sorts scenes and chapters instead of towels and socks. Here the disconnected ideas and anecdotes get molded by my writer into a coherent and compelling narrative. While something vital is getting done, it is considerably less fun for my writer. I see more mornings of furrowed brows and fewer of smiling and giggling.
The third stage of writing seems to be the least fun. I don’t recall having ever seen tears in the process, but they have certainly been warranted. Here my writer smooths the superfluous details and jagged edges; the unnecessary adverbs are speedily deleted and adeptly replaced. My writer has her axe: she takes her whet stone and sharpens and refines to make every word count, to make every phrase smooth, to make every paragraph a vital component of the story. Here the true poetry takes place. This is also the place where the fun and creativity of the project (for before this stage, a novel is really only a project) are transformed into something marvelous.
A prolific finance colleague of mine was once asked how he is so productive. His response was simple: “I am a good finisher.” It takes a good finisher to get through the third stage. The third stage of the writing process makes you want to pull your hair out. It may lead you to despair. But this is also the stage where you get to tell the world your story in your way. This is where you make the magic.
So, my writer, keep on. Make your magic.
When Bill is not sending smoke signals to the Muses pleading for mercy on behalf of his wife, he professes finance at Suffolk University. Bill says the only difference between Ginger’s creative writing and his academic writing is that he gets to use more adverbs.